How do families manage when these sudden changes in plans happen? How do you live your life knowing that making big decisions is often counterproductive? There must be plenty of instances when people purchase or sign leases on new places, times when their families give up jobs and pack up their lives, only to learn that the service member is going to be working somewhere else. The wife of an officer on Sam’s last ship had this experience; she gave up her job to move with her husband upon his transfer, only to learn that he was being sent overseas. After this, she resolved never to move for him again, and they have managed a long distance relationship and childrearing for years. What is so crucial to national security that a family needs to be moved pointlessly, so many times after already signing over the next several years to a city and job placement not of their choosing? At least, if it is so crucial, they deserve an explanation, which is rarely if ever given.
Then there is the question of timing. We are currently waiting to hear when Sam will be expected to start work—another matter that they have been completely unresponsive about. Sam has written several emails to the guy whose job placement he will be taking over, and heard nothing in response. Needless to say there is no one at the top managing things to make sure that everyone is informed of their work start dates with enough notice—ironic since there are obviously people at the top making strategic decisions about what the navy needs, where and when. We could learn tomorrow that Sam must report for work the next day, in which case we would need to cancel our wedding planning appointments and he would need to leave my apartment, where he is currently staying, to settle in his new city a few hours away. In the military, I’ve gotten the sense that my life and relationship is shaped by a totally capricious and unpredictable entity that is certainly not god, but that sometimes seems similarly powerful and difficult to figure out.
I suspect that as Sam begins several years of shore duty, there will be other, less obvious challenges to contemplate, such as how, now that he is home, to lead a life that incorporates some of the survival skills and pursuits that I developed while Sam was gone. I started going to yoga three times a week. I was cooking elaborate vegetarian meals for myself, and feeling healthier than I was when I was eating heavier meals with Sam when he was home and bowls of cereal when we lived in different cities and I was trying to pack in work obligations during weekdays in order to free up time with him. I began to write, including this blog but also returning to other academic projects that I had abandoned. I had a clean, pristine apartment.
These are pastimes that I don’t want to say goodbye to now that Sam is home. Continuing to pursue this balanced life is difficult, because now weekends and most free time is a compromise when I am either away from home with Sam, or he is in my tiny apartment, filling it up with his things, his presence; and I have to summon my own willpower and sense of independence in order to go to a yoga class or meet a friend after work. Not that Sam contributes to this. In fact, it has always been Sam’s insistence that I lead my own life both while he is gone and at home. It is me who wants to maximize my time with him, to be home early for dinner; to spend mornings chatting with him over coffee rather than writing; and to take fewer weekend visits with friends in order to spend more time together.
Shore duty, I suppose, will entail the challenge of finding this balance of my-time interspersed with our-time. Because, I’ve learned, the issue isn’t just that navy life is unpredictable and you need your own forms of stability outside your relationship. Rather, in my efforts to make navy life “work” for us, I’ve begun to think of everything I do as a survival skill rather than just something that needs to be a part of my life regardless of what my partner does for a living. I realize the pastimes I name above have become just as much a part of military life as Sam’s readiness to follow orders whenever they come up.
The task of shore duty is getting myself back into a mind frame when I do things because they are important and I want to, not because I “need” them during this or that part of Sam’s career. The difference is subtle, but it is real.